School choice is another, perhaps better, way of doing public education

26 May

From The Federalist

In the classic Charles Dickens novel Bleak House, the reader meets a woman named Mrs. Jellyby. Mrs. Jellyby has an ordinary family, but no time for them at all. This woman has her eyes fixed on something more important.

Her real calling, she feels certain, is overseas charity work. She opines constantly about the tragic conditions in Africa. She throws herself into dubious missionary efforts that are both offensively paternalistic and completely ineffective.

The question of real-world impact hardly seems to cross Mrs. Jellyby’s mind. She derives so much purpose and pleasure from the act of meaning well that actually doing good appears irrelevant. The suffering of others is chiefly a means to self-satisfaction, not a problem to solve.

And she is blind to the pain her fixation causes. Her neglected husband is miserable. Her children run wild. Her home is a disaster. But the matriarch ignores her family’s struggles. Who has time for such worries? There are foreigners to pretend to save!

Dickens heaps scorn on this character’s crazy priorities. The reader is meant to laugh at her disinterest in the efficacy of her work and her inattention to her family.

Updating the parody
What if Dickens were rewriting this story today? The object of Mrs. Jellyby’s concern would need to change. Christianizing Africa is hardly the trendy topic du jour. He’d need another subject on which a self-appointed social justice crusader would feign expertise. Let’s say he picks public education.

How would modern Mrs. Jellyby approach American schools? We can be sure of two things. First, her own sense of self-righteousness would get priority over actual results. And second, her duties to her own family would take a backseat to her grand plans for society.

In short, a comedic case study in how not to help people would look exactly like this op-ed from the New York Times.

Professor Gautney starts by claiming that school choice exacerbates inequality. She backs up this allegation with one study that looks at the racial makeup of schools in New York. The report doesn’t cite a single student outcome. Its sole concern is old-school ethnic arithmetic.

If you were genuinely interested in how education policy affects children, you would not hang your hat on one study of a second-order issue. There is a vast scholarly literature on the direct impact of school choice on actual student outcomes. The bulk of it is quite encouraging.

Take, for example, a recent report from Mathematica Policy Research, a well-respected nonpartisan outfit. I have written about this study before. I plan to keep writing about it. It is that interesting and important.

This report is unique because the scholars kept collecting data long after most studies lose interest. As a result, their data set tracks students past their high school graduations, all through their college years, and even into their early careers.

The results? Compared to virtually identical students who attended traditional high schools, charter students in Chicago and Florida were about 10 percent more likely to enroll in college. The Florida kids also had a 13 percent edge in sticking with college once enrolled. And by their mid-twenties, the Florida kids were earning more than $2,000 more per year on average than their non-charter peers.

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